Two extracts from Sweeney Astray, Seamus Heaney’s version of the medieval Irish work Buile Suibhne. Reflecting a time of religious change in Ireland, the first beautifully describes a shapeshifting transformation whilst making it the result of a curse. In the second, there is at least a suggestion that it might, rather, have been another route to holiness. Meanwhile Christian priests have taken on Druid powers and roles, – non-canonical forms of cursing and binding, the support of animal allies and directing peace negotiations.
“There was a certain Ronan Finn in Ireland, a holy and distinguished cleric. He was ascetic and pious, an active missionary, a real Christian soldier. He was a real servant of God, one who punished his body for the good of his soul, a shield against vice and the devil’s attacks, a gentle, genial, busy man.
“One time when Sweeney was king of Dal-Arie, Ronan was there marking out a church called Killaney. Sweeney was in a place where he heard the clink of Ronan’s bell as he was marking out the site, so he asked his people what the sound was.
“It is Ronan Finn, the son of Bearach, they said. He is marking out a church in your territory and what you hear is the ringing of his bell.
“Sweeney was suddenly angered and rushed away to hunt the cleric from his church. Eorann, his wife, a daughter of Conn of Ciannacht, tried to hold him back and snatched at the fringe of his crimson cloak, but the sliver cloak-fastener broke at the shoulder and sprang across the room. She got the cloak alright, but Sweeney had bolted, stark naked, and soon landed with Ronan.
“He found the cleric glorifying the King of heaven and earth, in full voice in front of his psalter, a beautiful illuminated book. Sweeney grabbed the book and flung it into the cold depths of a lake nearby, where it sank without trace. Then he took hold of Ronan and was dragging him out through the church when he heard a cry of alarm. The call came from a servant of Congal Claon’s who had come with orders from Congal to summon Sweeney to battle at Moira. He gave a full report of the business and Sweeney went off directly with the servant, leaving the cleric distressed at the loss of his psalter and smarting from such contempt and abuse.
“A day and a night passed and then an otter rose out of the lake with the psalter and brought it to Ronan, completely unharmed. Ronan gave thanks to God for that miracle, and cursed Sweeney.
“After that, Ronan came to Moira to make peace between Donal, so of Aodh, and Congal Claon, son of Scannlan, but he did not succeed. Nevertheless, the cleric’s presence was taken as a seal and guarantee of the rules of battle; they made agreements that no killing would be allowed except between those hours they had set for beginning and ending the fight each day. Sweeney, however, would continually violate every peace and truce which the cleric had ratified, slaying a man each day before the sides were engaged and slaying another each evening when the combat was finished. Then, on the day fixed for the great battle, Sweeney was in the field before everyone else.
“He was dressed like this:
next his white skin, the shimmer of silk;
and his satin girdle around him;
and his tunic, that reward of service
and gift of fealty from Congal,
was like this –
bordered in gemstones and gold,
a rustle of sashes and loops,
the studded silver gleaming,
the slashed hem embroidered in points.
He had an iron-shod spear in his hand,
a shield of mottled horn on his back,
a gold-hilted sword at his side.
“He marched out like that until he encountered Ronan with eight psalmists from his community. They were blessing the armies, sprinkling them with holy water, and they sprinkled Sweeney with the rest. Sweeney thought they had done it just to mock him, so he lifted one of his spears, hurled it, and killed one of Ronan’s psalmists in a single cast. He made another throw with the second spear at the cleric himself, so that it pierced the bell that hung from his neck, and the shaft sprang off into the air. Ronan burst out:
“My curse fall on Sweeney
for his great offence.
His smooth spear profaned
my bell’s holiness,
cracked bell hoarding grace
since the first saint rang it –
it will curse you to the trees,
bird-brain among branches.
Just as the spear shaft broke
and sprang into the air
may the mad spasms strike
you, Sweeney, forever.
“There were great shouts as the herded armies clashed and roared out their war cries like stags. When Sweeney heard these howls and echoes assumed into the travelling clouds and amplified through the vaults of space, he looked up and he was possessed by a dark rending energy.
“His brain convulsed,
his mind split open.
Vertigo, hysteria, lurchings
and launchings came over him,
he staggered and flapped desperately,
he was revolted by the thought of known places
and dreamed strange migrations.
His fingers stiffened,
his feet scuffled and flurried,
his heart was startled,
his senses were mesmerized,
his sight was bent,
the weapons fell from his hands
and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion
like a bird of the air.
And Ronan’s curse was fulfilled.
“His feet skimmed over the grasses so lightly he never unsettled a dewdrop and all that day he was a hurtling visitant of plain and field, bare mountain and bog, thicket and marshland, and there was no hill and hollow, no plantation or forest in Ireland that he did not appear in that day; until he reached Ros Bearaigh in Glen Arkin, where he hid in a yew tree in the glen.”
The second extract, where the Church is represented by the friendlier Moling, describes the end of Sweeney’s life – still as a wandering bird.
“At last Sweeney arrived where Moling lived, the place that is known as St. Mullin’s. Just then Moling was addressing himself to Kevin’s psalter and reading from it to his students. Sweeney presented himself at the brink of the well and began to eat watercress.
“‘Aren’t you the early bird?’ said the cleric, and continued, with Sweeney answering, afterwards.
Moling: So, you would steal a march on us, up and breakfasting so early!
Sweeney: Not so very early, priest. Terce has come in Rome already.
Moling: And what knowledge has a fool about the hour of terce in Rome?
Sweeney: The Lord makes me His oracle, from sunrise till sun’s going down.
Moling: Then speak to us of hidden things. Give us tidings of the Lord.
Sweeney: Not I. But if you are Moling, you are gifted with the Word.
Moling: Mad as you are, you are sharp-witted. How do you know my face and name?
Sweeney: In my days astray, I ested in this enclosure many a time
Moling: Look at this leaf of Kevin’s book, the coilings on this psalter’s page.
Sweeney: The yew leaf coils round my nook in Glen Bolcain’s foliage.
Moling: This churchyard, this colour, is there no pleasure here for you?
Sweeney: My pleasure is great and other: the hosting that day at Moira.
Moling: I will sing Mass, make a hush of high celebration.
Sweeney: Leaping an ivy bush is a higher calling even.
Moling: My ministry is only toil, the weak and the strong both exhaust me.
Sweeney: I toil to a bed on the chill steeps of Benevenagh
Moling: When your death comes, will it be death by water, in holy ground?
Sweeney: It will be early when I die. One of your herds will make the wound.
“You are more than welcome here, Sweeney, said Moling, for you are fated to live and die here. You shall leave the history of your adventures with us and receive a Christian burial in a churchyard. Therefore, said Moling, no matter how far you range over Ireland, day by day, I bind you to return to me every evening so that I may record your story.”
When Sweeney is indeed mortally wounded by one of the communities’ herdsmen, the rest of the community feel anger and grief.
“Enna McBracken was ringing the bell for prime at the door of the churchyard and saw what had happened. He spoke this poem:
“This is sad, herd, this was deliberate,
Outrageous, sickening and sinful.
Whoever struck here will live to regret
Killing the king, the saint, the holy fool.
My heart is breaking with pity for him.
He was a man of fame and high birth.
He was a king, he was a madman.
His grave will be a hallowing of earth.”
Sweeney lives long enough to confess and take the sacrament. “He received Christ’s body and thanked God for having received it and after that was anointed by the clerics”. Moling who “with holy viaticum” has “limed him for the Holy Ghost”, also expresses affection for Sweeney and reveals that he, too, has learned something.
“The man who is buried here was cherished indeed, said Moling. How happy we were when we walked and talked along his path. And how I loved to watch him yonder at the well. It is called the Madman’s Well because he would often eat its watercress and drink its water, and so it is named after him. And every other place he used to haunt will be cherished too.
“Because Sweeney loved Glen Bolcain
I learned to love it, too. He’ll miss
The fresh streams tumbling down,
The green beds of watercress.
He would drink his sup of water from
The well yonder we have called
The Madman’s Well; now his name
Keeps brimming in its sandy cold”.
Seamus Heaney Sweeney Astray London: Faber & Faber, 1983